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Vizio SB4021M-A1 review: Vizio's sound bar is a solid pick -- for now

If sound bars are the ultimate "good enough" home audio solution, the Vizio SB4021M-A1 ($270 street price) feels like the typical good-enough sound bar. It's solid in just about every respect, with a sleek design, a good remote, and above-average sound quality. At the same time, it lacks a single standout quality that would put it head and shoulders above its competitors. It may be easier to enthusiastically recommend a less well-rounded sound bar that either looks or sounds fantastic, but there's something to be said for a balanced product.

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7.5

Vizio SB4021M-A1

The Good

The <b>Vizio SB4021M-A1</b> is an affordable sound bar, with above-average looks, sound, and features. The included remote is a step up over most, with a simple button layout and a substantial feel. Its sound quality is particularly good with movies, especially compared with current alternatives.

The Bad

The SB4021M-A1 lacks built-in Bluetooth, which will be more common in 2013 sound bars. And while its overall sound quality is good, it's doesn't compare with the best we've heard over the last year.

The Bottom Line

The Vizio SB4021M-A1 hits a nice blend of features, design, and performance for its price, but better sound bars are coming in a few months.

The big hesitation about the SB4021M-A1 is its lack of built-in Bluetooth, which is about to become a much more common feature for new 2013 sound bars coming out in the spring. If you need to buy a sound bar now, the SB4021M-A1 is one of the better options currently on the market, but if you can wait just a few months, you'll have a better crop of sound bars to choose from.

Design
Vizio's sound bars have evolved over the years, but with the SB4021M-A1 it's sticking with what works. It looks largely the same as the VHT215 it replaces, with silver edges and angled metal feet on the bottom. It's 40 inches long, designed to complement a 42-inch TV, and its 2.1-inch depth makes it not quite as superslim as some other sound bars, but it's not bulky either. There's a front-panel display that gives handy feedback as to how loud you are or what input you're on, a basic nicety surprisingly missing from many sound bars. The included subwoofer is wireless and compact enough that it won't overwhelm your living room.

Remote
Sarah Tew/CNET

Sarah Tew/CNET

The included remote avoids a lot of the pitfalls common to sound bar remotes. It's a step up from the commonplace credit card-style clickers, with a chunkier feel and large buttons. The remote is also pleasantly minimalistic, with buttons for little more than basic transport and volume. While it doesn't feel as nice to hold as the Bose Solo's remote, for example, it's better than most and easy to use.

Features
The Vizio's inputs are on the back of the sound bar and cover all the major port types: optical, coaxial, and analog (minijack). While that's not many ports in total, you should be able to use the sound bar with most of your home theater devices if you use your TV to switch inputs. There's also a USB port that can play back MP3s, but it's a clunky solution since you need to navigate the connected drive using the SB4021M-A1's smallish display.

Inputs and outputs
Sarah Tew/CNET

The big missing feature is built-in Bluetooth, which is still relatively uncommon, but will be much more prevalent in 2013 based on what we saw at CES 2013. (In fact, Vizio announced that it's bringing Bluetooth to all of its new 2013 sound bars.) If you don't need a sound bar right away, you might consider waiting until more Bluetooth-compatible sound bars hit the market.

The Vizio also has onboard Dolby Digital decoding, unlike some of its competitors. Dolby Digital decoding isn't a must-have sound bar feature, but it can be useful in a few instances. One is when using a TV's internal over-the-air tuner, as TVs send a Dolby Digital signal from their optical output, so you need a sound bar with Dolby Digital decoding to hear audio. This can also be necessary if a TV's built-in Smart TV feature outputs a Dolby Digital signal. With the Vizio, you don't have to worry about that issue at all.

Setup
Speaker calibration isn't required for the SB4021M-A1; just hook up the sound bar directly to your TV's digital audio output. Vizio claims the SB4021M-A1's wireless subwoofer can be placed up to 60 feet away from the sound bar, but for best sound quality we recommend keeping it within 8 feet or less of the speaker. The subwoofer pairs with the sound bar automatically.

Sound quality
The SB4021M-A1 has bass and treble controls, so it's easy to fine-tune the speaker's tonal balance to taste, over a plus or minus range of 10 steps. We settled on +3 for the bass and -3 for the treble for most of our listening tests. No matter what settings we used, the blend between the subwoofer and sound bar was never perfectly seamless, so we were always aware that the bass was coming from the subwoofer. Ideally, all of the sound should appear to come from the speaker.

The car chase scenes in the "Ronin" Blu-ray, through the winding city streets of Nice, France, proved the SB4021M-A1's home theater moxie in a hurry. The big Audi S8's roaring horsepower was audible, via the SB4021M-A1's surprisingly potent subwoofer, and the sound bar was able to play loudly without distortion. With the remote you can dial in as much bass as you want, but it's not as deep and powerful as a cheap separate sub like the $79 Dayton Audio Sub-800, though as budget-priced sound bar-wireless sub combos go, the SB4021M-A1's bass is plenty powerful.

Dialogue sounded thinner than we'd like, and we couldn't make it better with the bass and treble controls. Music was hit or miss. Jazzy singer Patricia Barber's "Modern Cool" surround-sound Blu-ray sounded sweet, and her rhythm section's solid grooves came through loud and clear. Rock music was less convincing; the gap between the subwoofer and sound bar was the culprit.

Haier's SBEV40-Slim sound bar had no such problem. The blend was smooth, so the Haier had a fuller sound balance on movies and music. Its stereo soundstage was bigger and more spacious, but some buyers might prefer the SB4021M-A1 for its brighter and more detailed sound. The SB4021M-A1's sub was also more powerful than the SBEV-40 Slim's sub. Both systems are good, but we found the SBEV-40 Slim easier to listen to over the course of a movie.

The big catch to our comparison? Our reference Haier SBEV40-Slim sound bar was recently discontinued, and Haier is getting out of the sound bar business entirely. The Vizio's SB4021M-A1's performance is much more respectable in that light -- since you can't get the exceptional SBEV40-Slim anymore, the SB4021M-A1 is one of the better performers currently on the market.

Conclusion: A solid pick, for now
If you need a sound bar now, the Vizio SB4021M-A1 is one of your best options, with an all-around competent blend of good design, features, and sound quality. But if you can wait a few more months, better models are likely on their way, especially if you want built-in Bluetooth.

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7.5

Vizio SB4021M-A1

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 8Performance 7